Corporate IT manager turned volunteer John Cartwright brings technology to Haiti, Kenya, Nepal and other places in the world eager to educate children for the future.
In his more than 30-year career as an information technology (IT) professional in the tech and aerospace industries, John Cartwright helped develop leading-edge software, implemented mission-critical computer hardware, and led high-performing teams through technology challenges and breakthroughs.
But he found his true passion while volunteering his IT knowledge and skills to help underserved communities around the globe, bringing education to children in remote and sometimes devastated parts of the world.
It began in 2011 with a trip to earthquake-shattered Haiti, where Cartwright helped install a computer lab in L’Ecole de Choix, a new elementary school in Mirebalais.
The lab was designed to run an adaptive learning program, individualizing math, science and English instruction for each student’s needs.
“The application had never been successfully implemented in this type of environment,” said Cartwright. “To say the least, it would be a big challenge to get it running in a school in Haiti.”
Cartwright offered valuable technical expertise plus practical skills acquired from his formative years growing up on a farm and building two houses. The satisfaction of overcoming challenges to build the lab was heartfelt, but reactions from the children overwhelmed him. Their excitement changed his life.
“I don’t know how you quite describe that look, that spark that you see in their eyes,” he said. “Just joy, utter joy for learning.”
Cartwright’s interest in hands-on philanthropy began when he applied for a volunteer spot in the Intel Employee Service Corps (IESC).
Described as Intel’s version of the U.S. Peace Corps, IESC volunteer projects range from education to health to agriculture. Along with Lego, Microsoft, Google and others, Intel made the Forbes top 10 list for companies with the best corporate social responsibility reputations in 2017.
Building Opportunities for Children
When the IESC team arrived in Haiti, they discovered L’Ecole des Choix was still under construction and had no electricity. Cartwright grabbed a tool belt and went to work, helping local contractors wire the school. His teammates began training teachers at a nearby hotel. Two weeks later, the teachers were ready and so was the lab.
Cartwright’s ingenuity led him to question how to set up computer networks in resource-constrained environments. These systems usually call for a wired internet network powered by a server computer, which require air conditioning and a battery back-up system.
“I had to ask myself, ‘Is that really sustainable?’” Cartwright questioned. “‘Is it extendable to other schools?’ The answer was no.”
Cartwright helped reengineer the set up so that it ran wirelessly from a Classmate PC, a small and energy-efficient laptop, rather than a server.
Making Connections in Kenya
Taking what he learned in Haiti, Cartwright later stepped up for a 2012 trip to a Kenya community education center to build another computer lab. Again, challenges ensued. Without reliable electricity, Cartwright was forced to find another solution. Then the idea hit him to use a car battery to power the system.
During his five weeks in Kenya, Cartwright also volunteered at a preschool, helping students learn to use the PCs to prepare for their required kindergarten entry test.
“The students were so excited, and there was such an outpouring of gratitude,” said Cartwright.
Growing a Nonprofit
The IESC must work closely with governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), so it didn’t take Cartwright long before he started helping Hands in Outreach, a nonprofit working to provide education for girls in Nepal. He joined the board and has spent significant time conducting outreach.
A year later, he started his own nonprofit, Just Learning Opportunities, dedicated to providing opportunities for youth through educational technologies. To help fund Just Learning Opportunities, he launched Just Coffee and Tea, a charitable company that sells coffee and tea from countries Cartwright has visited.
Over the past several years, working as part of the IESC and in partnership with other organizations, Cartwright has been instrumental in setting up computer labs and installing educational software in schools and community centers in Nepal.
One of the most memorable for Cartwright was Yaldang, a school nestled high in the Himalayas.
To access the school, Cartwright and his team flew to a small airstrip in northwest Nepal and then hiked for three days to get to the village.
“Thankfully, the sherpas carried up the PCs and other technology,” said Cartwright, who had not yet acclimated to the altitude.
Often, the work at hand required ingenuity.
Hydropower ran the computer lab in Yaldang. However, at Lalitpur Madhyamik Vidyalaya school in Patan, Nepal, Cartwright had to set up a solar array to provide electricity for the PCs.
“We’re not talking about out-of-the-box applications,” said Cartwright. “Even educational software was adapted to meet the needs of each locale.”
Student outcomes were so successful in Nepal six more schools quickly adopted the program. Standardized tests scores improved in each school, said Cartwright.
Bitten by the Volunteer Bug
In 2015, Cartwright was honored for his extraordinary record of service when he was selected as one of 55 Heroes of the Fortune 500 by Fortune Magazine.
Though Cartwright retired from Intel in 2016, he continues to partner with IESC efforts through Just Learning Opportunities.
Reflecting on the work he’s done in Haiti, Kenya and Nepal, Cartwright said the experience has been transformative.
“Once you’ve been bitten by the bug, it can’t help but impact the way you think, the way you act, the way you view the world around you,” he said.
“You really get the sense that through this volunteer work, you have the ability to provide children with opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have.”